The Utterly Scandalous Life of Harriet Mordaunt
Harriet Mordaunt came into this world as Harriet Sarah Moncreiffe, one of sixteen siblings to a rich, titled Scottish family in 1848. She had a privileged life and upbringing and it's no surprise her childhood is described as relaxed and easy-going, downright pleasant. Her and her seven sisters were commonly seen and referred to as beautiful women and when they were all together they were a feminine force to be reckoned with.
Her parents were highly social often entertaining in their home and she grew up around some impressive names including the Prince of Wales, affectionately known as Bertie but also a bevy of Dukes, Earls and Marquis.
Daughters of well to do families required well to do marriages and this family was no different. Every one of his daughters married extremely well including a number of wealthy Barons, an Earl and Duke – bespeaks of either their beauty or their fathers skill in finding spouses.
At eighteen years of age she married Sir Charles Mordaunt, a very wealthy tenth Baronet, who was also a member of Parliament (Government). Harriet, likely due to her upbringing, was an outgoing and social girl who enjoyed parties, company and entertaining. Her new husband however was most definitely in the camp of country boy preferring to hunt, fish and camp over attending parties and social gatherings. Despite this they were said to be happy.
When I say that Sir Charles was wealthy, I am talking about a seventy-two bedroom house wealthy – which was named Walton Hall and was located in Warwickshire. Being a part of the Marlborough House set – those who were socially associated socially with the Prince and Princess of Wales – they needed to be wealthy.
The Prince of Wales
Royalty can be a pain to document, considering the reuse of titles and names. The Prince of Wales is a title given to the British English monarchs heir apparent (next-in-line for the throne basically), today's Prince of Wales, is Charles, son of the present Queen Elizabeth II. In the early nineteenth century this was a man known as Albert Edward, affectionately called Bertie and he was the eldest son of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.
To put it into a clearer perspective this was Albert's grandfather, Albert is the husband of the Queen Mum. But like the present day Prince Charles, he had a long, long wait till he became King Edward VII. Having too much time, too much money he devoted himself to the pleasures of life, but mainly the flesh based kind – and being the Prince didn't hinder his lifestyle at all.
Being the eldest son of a King and Queen his upbringing was likely quite strict and it's said he did not have a very good childhood and continually disappointed his parents with his grades in school. Still he grew into a diplomatic, charming man who enjoyed social outings, parties and get-together.
Harriet's Married Life
In 1866 when Harriet married Sir Charles marriage in the elite social circles was not often something sacred, it was rarely a love match. Elite marriages were often arranged to increase power, property or wealth, also to create alliances with not only other houses but also countries .. some families were quite good at this, one royal house marrying into nine other royal and high ranking families around the world. But those marriages and Harriets while 'happy appearing' were rife with side relationships in the form of mistresses and lovers.
Whether Harriet simply ignored this rule or was unaware of it (highly unlikely), it was her downfall, that and her big mouth.
Giving birth to their first daughter in February of 1869 named Violet, Harriet quickly developed a panic when it came clear that her daughter had vision issues and believing she may have caused it – through a venereal disease, common belief at the time - she spilled the beans to her husband of all her liaisons – naming Viscount Cole, Sir Frederick Johnstone and the Prince of Wales.
Naturally he was infuriated, not so much of the affairs but of the lack of respect to him and the unspoken rules. Worse, Violet was likely not even his. After fighting, breaking into her locked desk and discovering letters from the Prince of Wales (who had known her since she was a kid) he was dead set on a divorce and no one was getting in his way of having it.
Harriets family, since her marriage, had been receiving about two thousand pounds a year from the marriage, which in todays money is about one hundred and fifty thousand – a goodly sum. Her father not wishing to lose that income, as well as having a number of other daughters seeking good (wealthy) marriages a divorce would be disastrous for him and his family, stepped in to resolve the dispute.
He declared Harriet insane to save both money and his other daughters futures.
Whether Harriet agreed with this or not is unknown, but knowing what I know of the nineteenth century family, particularly the elite, it wouldn't have mattered if she did have objections. Perhaps with Violets vision corrected she regretted her actions and was in salvage mode – with her father. Who knows for sure, but the laws of the time stated a mad or insane person could not be divorced.
Nothing either side did could avert the ensuing scandal; all they could hope for was to come out of it in the better light.
The Court, The Scandal and The Fight
"Charlie, I have been very wicked. I have done very wrong. With Lord Cole, Sir Frederic Johnstone, and the Prince of Wales and with others—often, and in open day.”
Harriets family claimed her insane from childbirth – just temporarily – and that it was Violets eye condition that sparked it, Harriet spoke not from truth but from guilt of not producing a healthy child. Sir Charles said poppycock to that, she expected him to have accepted her actions and not want a divorce and when he did not react that way, she was suddenly insane.
He wanted his divorce case heard.
Everyone wanted to know if Harriet was insane.
He argued that after he left for a sporting trip in June of 1868 that she was seen, by both staff and chaperones he left to watch her, to have a number of visitors including the Prince of Wales and Viscount Cole, who stayed most of the night in her company and in another instance was seen exiting a carriage with her and no one else.
Charles named Lord Cole and Frederic Johnstone as co-respondents in the petition for divorce and threaten to involve the Prince of Wales.
The family countered that they were nothing but friends and not lovers, people she had known since a young age. This divorce was taking years to run through the courts and Sir Charles was determined to have this divorce and did the unthinkable, summoned the Prince of Wales to the courts.
He is known to have visited her when Charles was out-of-town or the country on a trip or business. Knowing the Prince of Wales was a man all about the pleasures of the flesh and Harriet herself having an inclination to have affairs and a known beauty, it seems highly probable they did have an intimate relationship. Then again, he could have been like a big brother to her.
Up till now the Prince had been left out of it. Naturally the Prince denied any improper relationship, and in a gesture of goodwill to his friend(s), he supplied his own personal and highly respected doctor to declare Harriet insane.
Eventually Lord Cole or Viscount Cole stepped forwards to claim Violet as his own, not because he felt she was, but for his Prince and quite likely a tidy sum of money too. Charlie was granted his divorce, Harriet's family lost the two thousands annual pounds but the daughters all married well, Harriet spent the rest of her life in an insane asylum and the Prince of Wales became King Edward VII.
This tale leaves so many questions, it's hard to not have conspiracy accusations swirl.
Did the Prince just want this to go away as quickly as possible? Likely yes, it was big news and dogged him often. He had the influence, money and means to have men step forward to claim paternity, to pay Harriet's father the money he would be losing or at the very least put pressure on him to not care as much. Maybe he even told Charles to summon him, to help put an end to this nasty business.
For Harriet's part it's believed that she was in on the legal game of insanity, not wishing to trade in her wealth and status for the doomed life of a single mother. Maybe she believed the Prince would save her. Maybe she was guilted by her father to do what was best for family and not herself. Just maybe her new daughters eye condition really did send her into a hysteria to claim one nonsensical thing.
The daughter, Violet, came out the best in all this mess. Despite her 'father' Viscount Cole having little to do with her, it was accepted but never proven that Violet was indeed his daughter. He merely did not contest the allegation, which is not an admission of guilt. It's thought he did this for Prince 'Bertie' and some sort of compensation. Ultimately though Violet turned out just fine marrying a Marquess of Bath.
The letters, originally found in a locked drawer of Harriet's desk, were eventually seen by the courts but they proved no evidence of intimacy, just friendly letters between old friends, more interestingly perhaps is the fact that Bertie's great great grandson, Prince Edward (alive today), has a daughter with the same eye defect.
Do you think she was crazy?
In on it the whole time?
Did the Prince father her child?